In 2008, I got a call from composer and drum icon John French who was looking for a guitarist for a new project he was working on. I was very familiar with his work as genius drummer and arranger of several Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band recordings (including the infamous Trout Mask Replica, one of the most influential avante garde “rock” records of all time). John needed a live band for his excellent (though criminally overlooked) 2008 release City of Refuge, and I was eventually tasked with playing guitar and finding the other musicians. In addition to a core instrumentation of Daren Burns on bass, Craig Bunch on drums, and myself, the only other guitarist who I knew could play John’s very difficult guitar parts) was Eric Klerks.
Since then, Eric has since gone on to become one of the live guitarists for the touring version of the revitalized Magic Band on several very successful tours. in addition to live bass playing gigs with (vocalist, instrumentalist and song writer) Hamed Nikpay, and (America’s Got Talent featured vocalist) Rafe Pearlman – Eric maintains active gigging and teaching schedules and is currently working on original material for a new CD.
A multi-instrumentalist with tremendous musicality and flexibility, Eric is a special musician and is proof that nice guys (with ridiculous amounts of talent) can finish first.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you discover the guitar?
EK: As long as I can remember, there was a cheap classical guitar at home. I believe it belonged to my mother. It fascinated me from my earliest years; the neck was massive and the action was unbearably high, so getting my little hands around it proved difficult. I still remember plucking the open strings and listening to the resonance, looking forward to the day when I would be able to play. I even experimented, at 7 or 8 years old, with using different toys and household items as a bow, reveling in the sustained tones until I was told by my parents that one wasn’t supposed to do those sorts of things with the guitar.
You’ve been playing bass since your high school band days. How do you approach playing bass as opposed to guitar?
EK: I began studying classical double bass, so my earliest conception was from a ‘reading’ perspective. My guitar playing began from a completely unschooled background, using my ear exclusively to find the notes I was looking for. My approach on each instrument began to converge around the time I was in college, 19 or 20, when I realized that the bass is an overlapping extension of the guitar, and vice versa. As such, I try to apply the same principles of chordal harmony, counterpoint and single-line playing so familiar to me on the guitar to the bass. I’ve never been a fan of reductionist “root-fifth” bass playing, and while it has its place – I prefer using the instrument like the bass/baritone voices in a 4-part chorale. Any playing, whether on guitar or bass, should be able to stand alone both melodically and harmonically.
How did you get into studying Jazz and how has your relationship to it changed with it over time?
EK: Coming from a non-reading background, I knew that there were ways to name and organize the sounds I was hearing on some of my favorite recording but I needed to develop the tools and vocabulary necessary to hone those skills. I was really interested in learning how to interpret chord charts, read standard notation and improvise in a coherent way. Studying jazz seemed to be the most efficient way of addressing those goals. I still study jazz players; I transcribe solos, learn new tunes, experiment with voicings and harmony and generally follow my ear to the players who pique my interest. It’s a very personal journey for me, which sometimes put me at odds with the more institutional side of jazz education.
I know that your interest in Jazz prompted you to go to New Orleans and Loyola. What did you get from your studies there (and from your time being being immersed in the New Orleans music scene)?
EK: First and foremost, I had some wonderful teachers. Not only in the jazz program but especially in the music theory and music history departments. Loyola’s teachers helped me to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of fundamental musicianship, as well as encouraging me to explore my own identity as a musician. New Orleans is a pretty small place, so within a year or two I had gotten to know many of the great musicians who work there. I went from having very little live performance experience to playing up to 5-6 nights a week within a few years. I learned a lot about listening and reacting in real time, as well as the ins and outs of the life of a working musician.
You left the school because of Hurricane Katrina. What was that experience like and how did you end up going to Cal Arts?
EK: I was planning on riding out the storm, as I had done with other hurricanes in the past. Some friends convinced me to leave town and stay with them near the Texas border. I drove out the night that the storm rolled in. It was surreal watching this place you called home get swallowed up on TV. As the flooding subsided, it became clear that my neighborhood was essentially uninhabitable. I was going into my last year at Loyola, but they cancelled the fall semester due to the devastation. At that time, I knew that I needed to continue my studies and finish school, so I began looking for suitable alternatives for the semester. I was already checking out graduate schools, and CalArts had been on my radar for some time. I got in touch with the admissions people there, and they said yes, you can study at CalArts for the semester. They were incredibly accommodating, and didn’t charge me a dime. I had driven up to my sister’s place in Colorado to give her my car, then flew to my dad’s place near San Francisco and drove down to LA on the last day of registration. I barely made it, but it worked out.
What made you decide to get your Master’s degree there?
EK: After my ‘Katrina semester’ at CalArts, which was a wonderful, positive experience for me, I went back to New Orleans for a few years, to finish at Loyola and try my hand at playing for a living. I settled in and worked quite a bit as a freelancer and with some great bands, but I started to get the urge to change scenery. I should explain that I moved someplace new every 3-5 years when I was a kid, so movement and migration are in my blood. I love New Orleans and always will, but I felt that the clock was ticking and I needed to get back to LA and stay in touch with the great people I met out there.
I want to talk about some of your CalArts experiences. I know you studied with Larry Koonse pretty intensely and used the term “gentle ass kicking” to describe your lessons can you talk about any of your lessons there?
EK: First, Larry is one of the most wonderful people I know. He’s patient, gracious and humble. A true joy to work with and he also happens to have an incredible conception of music on the guitar. I especially love the way he works with harmony and counterpoint on the instrument. When I studied with him those concepts were still a bit nebulous in my personal practice. The things he showed me were a real challenge, both mentally and physically on the instrument, and at times the challenge seemed insurmountable. He was always incredibly supportive, and I still work with the tools he gave me. It was a situation where I might come in to my lesson feeling pretty decent about my playing, and I would inevitably leave at the end of the hour feeling like I had much work and practice ahead of me. Great teacher.
You spent a lot of time working with Charlie Haden. How did that come about and what did you learn from that experience?
EK: That started in 2005 during my Katrina semester at CalArts. I was studying with Charlie and taking private lessons. Those were great- we’d play duets and have coffee! Anyway, knowing that I was a bassist as well he asked me to take care of his bass for him during a short west coast tour with the Liberation Music Orchestra. I guess I was his bass tech. When I came back to LA a few years later, he hired me in more of a personal assistant capacity for himself and his wife. I did a lot. When they were home I’d run errands, help with correspondence, advance concerts, help with interviews, even walk their dog, Jackson! When Charlie would tour, I’d usually go along as a road manager/bass tech. That was my first real taste of high level touring- we went all over Europe and North America. I got to meet some of my heroes, including Pat Metheny, Ornette Coleman, Brad Mehldau, Lee Konitz, Ethan Iverson, Carla Bley… the list goes on! It was very hard work and very draining, but I loved it. I still love traveling and touring. I learned a lot just from watching and listening to these master musicians working every night. Again, it starts with your ears and getting to hear such heavy cats night after night has a really effect on you. The other side was about the music business, managing expenses, working with promoters and agents, etc. I had never worked on that level before, so I’m grateful that I had some business experience with their organization before I had to worry about things like that for myself!
Let’s switch gears here. You just came off the road with the Magic Band. I know that that music is highly arranged so how do you go about working through the parts on that?
EK: Most of it happens by ear. When I’m learning a ‘new’ piece, I’ll get it as close as I can through transcription, then run it by the senior members of the band for comments and suggestions. Since at least one of them was present for most of the Beefheart recording sessions, I can get tips about fingerings and sound as well. After that, it’s just practicing with the records until I can execute the parts in time without having to hear any of the other parts in physical space. I still ‘hear’ the other instruments in my head though.
What’s the rehearsal process for working through such challenging material and what are the challenges in performing it live?
EK: There’s not much of a rehearsal process, really. We get the songs together on our own, talk and play a few times over the phone, then get together before the tour for a few days to put it all together. These guys have been doing it for years, and I try to bring my ‘A’ game every time so I can keep up. Live, the band has gotten really good at doing what I call ‘the tuck and roll’. Someone will make a mistake, and it could be anyone, but the rest of us are there immediately to help keep things on track. This isn’t too tough if you’re playing the blues, but when the drums are in 12/8, the bass is in 7/4 and the guitars are in 3/4 and 4/4, it takes a lot of focus and energy. The great news is that we make fewer mistakes each tour!
In terms of gear, do you have different gear needs for live versus the studio and are there any specific commonalities that you look for?
EK: I have a pretty big collection of guitars and basses, from big hollowbodies to strats and LPs. They’re tools to give me the sounds I’m looking for. Same story with amps. Actually, I don’t use amps anymore unless they’re provided as backline. When I’m out with the Magic Band, I use a Fender Hot Rod which is actually really disappointing. I don’t know if it’s this particular amp, but it really has some issues. I’ll probably be going direct the next time we tour. I used Line 6 gear for a while, but I was never really happy with the sounds I got in a live situation. Now I’m using a 3 channel Sansamp preamp with a couple of pedals and I love it. In a live situation, I think it’s about getting a clear, consistent sound to the mixing desk, then working with the techs to get things dialed in to the room. Same story with the bass. In my studio it’s all Logic and plugins. I love the Waves stuff for guitar, and the SSL plugins are a staple during mixing.
In terms of the Magic Band what attracts you to going solely FOH (Front of House)?
EK: This might sound funny in a live context, but I feel that going direct gives me more control over my sound. Often I need to change the volume level on the amp according to the size and acoustic properties of the room, and there’s a certain amount of sustain and harmonic richness which can disappear at lower levels. When I’m running through my POD or a preamp, the sound coming out of the monitors is more or less consistent from night to night, and generally much closer to what I’m hearing my head. As soon as any settings have to deviate on a tube amp, the sound becomes a compromise. Also, I can set my monitor mix in such a way that I can hear the whole band clearly and at a reasonable level. That makes a big difference in my quality of hearing, especially over the course of a tour. I need to hear and feel the details in the music, otherwise I feel like I’m just pantomiming. The other advantage, of course, is not having to worry about maintaining an amp on the road! I’ve spent many a soundcheck with the back of my amp opened up, sitting on the floor and changing tubes, replacing caps, etc. No problem on a day off, but 2 hours before a show it’s pretty nerve wracking.
Is there any gear you couldn’t live without?
EK: At the heart of it they’re all really just tools, but I do have a pretty sentimental attachment to a ’54 Les Paul Custom RI I was given as a present about 7 years ago. I only took it on the road with me once and I was a nervous wreck anytime I had to leave it anywhere!
I know the Magic Band tours have included a number of club dates and festivals. Is there any different way that you approach both gigs and, from a performance (or any other standard) what do you find to be the biggest differences between the two (if any)?
EK: Yeah, we’ve been fortunate to be able to play some great clubs, larger halls and festivals. There are two big factors which influence my approach to those very different situations. The first is the soundcheck. Most major festivals can’t give you the time to do much more than a basic line and level check. The turnover between bands is very fast, sometimes only 10-15 minutes. By the time the amps and drums are rolled in and set up, we have maybe 5 minutes to get something workable in the monitors. As a result, you’re stuck having to adjust levels on the fly or tough it out. We did a great festival in NYC last Fall. The vibe was great, the crowd was great, but the monitor guy was on the other side of the stage about 5 feet below the stage floor. Communicating with him was really difficult, so it was one of those ‘tough it out’ situations. You really have to know the music and be confident to get through a situation like that.
Clubs and theaters generally allow a few hours for soundcheck, so mixes can be dialed in. It also gives us a chance to get used to the layout of the stage, which brings me to the second factor: being comfortable in the space. Regardless of the venue, I try to take a minute to walk around my part of the stage, check for drop-offs, staircases, steps, cables, etc. I’ve worked with some world-class dancers in my travels and that’s the first thing they’ll do when they get to the venue. Knowing and owning your space allows you move confidently and focus on the performance and the audience, whether you’re playing to 500 people or 5000. As far as engaging audiences of different sizes, my primary focus is to enjoy myself and get as deep into the music as I can. People see that and respond to it, no matter where you’re playing.
You do most of the setup work on your instruments, how did you get into that?
EK: I used to be terrified of that stuff, but while I was in high school I bought a cheap Tele copy. It sounded good but the action was too high and the neck had tons of relief. I started reading various guitar setup guides (Dan Erlewine’s book was a revelation) and hunting around on the internet, and after a lot of trial and error I started to get comfortable with setting intonation, adjusting truss rods, bridges, etc. I do my own electronic and fret work as well; the results are usually good, but I’m still logging the hours until I can do everything properly the first time. It also brings me closer to the instrument and allows me to make little adjustments when I’m traveling.
Since I’ve known you you’ve played guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel guitar, gamelan, saz and oud. How do you approach playing and learning new instruments?
EK: It starts with my ears. If I can hear it, it’s only a matter of finding it on the instrument. For stringed instruments, each instrument is a matrix. You have intervallic relationships between open strings (and across any given fret); we’ll call that the x-axis. Then you have the y-axis which are the string as they travel along the fingerboard or fretboard. As I said before, it’s just a matter of knowing where the notes and intervals are at any given place on the instrument.
As someone who’s worked with a number of different people, how do you approach collaboration?
EK: It always starts with listening. Whoever initiates it, it’s still a conversation. I only have one requirement; I want 100% from everyone all the time, especially myself. In that sense I can be a little difficult to work with from time to time. That said, the results are that much more acceptable when everyone is present and working through things together in a focused way.
As a related question to working with so many people, do you have any tips for approaching auditions?
EK: If you have the chance to prepare the music prior to the audition, do it. Internalize it to the point that you don’t have to think about it when you’re playing. Subtle things like being able to look at the people you’re playing with can make a huge difference in the way you’re perceived. If you’re reading, try to stay relaxed and keep looking ahead! Don’t worry about wrong notes after you’ve played them, it just takes away your momentum. Stay in the moment. Finally, take time to talk with the people you may be working with. Even 30 seconds of conversation will help you to feel out the vibe and give the other people a more personal connection to you. I’ve gotten called by bands after auditions and turned them down because certain behaviors send up red flags. Likewise, I’ve worked with bands that never achieved much success simply because it was such a positive experience in every other way.
How did you start working with Hamed Nikpay?
EK: I met Hamed through a fantastic percussionist in LA named Greg Ellis. I had met Greg playing bass in Sussan Deyhim’s band (which was a monster group- Will Calhoun on Drums, Greg on Percussion, Mitch Foreman on Keys, plus Sussan and her partner Richard). We had a couple of rehearsals to sort out the charts, then played a benefit concert in LA. It was just us for about 2 hours, so we got to explore the music a bit. After that we went to London and played a concert followed by a BBC session. We set up in a studio with cameras and headphone mixes for everyone and played 5 or 6 songs. We were in pretty good form from the concert, but having the luxury of doing multiple takes was great!
How did the collaboration with Rafe Pearlman come about?
EK: I met Rafe through a mutual friend, he had moved down to LA from Seattle not long before. Truly world-class vocalists are hard to find, and Rafe is one. As soon as I heard his music, I knew I needed to work with him. I was invited to play a set with him at The Mint in LA, so I memorized the songs and headed down with my upright bass. That’s where we met for the first time; we rehearsed the songs for the first time in the dressing room, then went out and played the show. It was a blast! Rafe and Hamed both have a really interesting trait- they use their voices in a very instrumental way. They follow their ears and the melodies they hear. That’s the most important thing- following the melody. If it means leaving the written form of the song, then so be it. I want to be as prepared as possible on the instrument and with the repertoire, so that when it’s time to play you have complete freedom.
As an active teacher, how does playing affect teaching and vice versa?
EK: It’s all positive. I think of it as being both an academic and a researcher. Things I learn while playing will often change what I teach in a subtle way, and I’ll find concepts while teaching that will work their way into my playing and practicing. I have students of all ages, so I’m constantly being exposed to music I haven’t heard before. It’s a great way to keep the ears fresh.
How do you approach improvisation both as a pedagogy and as a performer?
EK: For me, it begins and ends with developing your ear. If you can hear something, it’s only a matter of finding it on your instrument. The true challenge comes with doing it in real time. I tell my students that they have to know every note on the instrument. They have to know where every interval is. It’s like a kid playing in a sandbox- you know how big the thing is, where all your toys and shovels and buckets are, but when you’re playing you don’t have to think about them; they are assimilated into your play. The guitar is my sandbox, my backyard, whatever you want to call it. You should know your instrument well enough to be comfortable whether you’re running around the whole thing in circles or sitting in a corner playing in the dirt. Then you’re just playing.
How do you approach learning new things?
EK: I try to keep an open mind, and look at the information in its own historical context. After that, I’ll see if it has any current resonance with what I’m doing. Whether it does or not is beside the point, it doesn’t make the information more or less valuable, but some things will be immediately applicable in an obvious way and other things may need to sit on the shelf for a little while. On the instrument, it’s a matter of executing what needs to be played in a clear way so that my musculature and brain can connect and internalize the part.
What drives your aesthetic?
EK: I just want to explore. Whether it’s music, art, science, culture, whatever; I want to be exposed to as many ideas as I can. Some things stick, other things don’t. I guess I could do a post-mortem on those experiences, but frankly I don’t spend a lot of time reflecting. I like to be present in life and music and let other people tell me what they hear and see in me and my music if they feel like it.
I wanted to talk a bit about your new CD that’s coming out. What is your writing process like?
EK: This CD will have keyboards, guitar, drums and voice. The Beefheart material has crept into my writing in a big way, so this is sort of a reimagining of the classic organ trio in a contemporary way, using composition and improvisation methods that take as much from avant-rock as jazz. Hoping to have it out by the end of the summer. In terms of writing, sometimes it starts with the guitar, other times it’s just brain-to-notation. Harmonies usually happen first, but often the melody I end up using is contained in the chords, so it’s pretty holistic. I’m a perfectionist, so I’ll do hundreds of revisions, often to find that I liked the first version the best! It can be frustrating, but it’s part of the process.
What’s next for you?
EK: Festivals, club gigs, more guitar playing, more bass playing. I’ve been working with tuning my double bass in fifths, an octave below the cello, with some pretty spectacular results.
Thanks so much for your time Eric!
For more information about Eric Klerks’ performances and recordings be sure to check out his site, ericklerks.com.